|Date: 24 Feb 2005|
Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Author: Ruth Morris
The Asian-American Hotel Owners Association on Wednesday refused to withdraw its invitation to controversial Indian statesman Narendra Modi to speak at a Fort Lauderdale hospitality conference next month.
In a brewing debate imported from a far-flung Indian state and imbued with ethnic tensions, the association is coming under increasing pressure to cancel Modi's visit as guest speaker at the group's annual convention, running from March 24- 26. Human rights monitors charge that Modi, chief minister of the western Gujarat state, turned a blind eye in 2002 as Hindu nationalists rampaged against Muslims and that his government later obstructed investigations into the atrocity.
Almost all the 9,700 members of the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association also hail from Gujarat.
Speaking by phone from the association's Atlanta headquarters, President Fred Schwartz said the group was standing by its decision to bring Modi to the conference.
"We invited him from a business perspective, to discuss investing in Gujarat ... regarding infrastructure and the socio-economic situation," Schwartz said.
Asked about allegations that the association was being influenced by an exclusivist agenda of Hindu operatives based in Gujarat, he said, "We recognize the concerns over the tragic events that took place in Gujarat in 2002," but, "We're a business group. We're not a political group."
Opposition to Modi's visit centers on his role in a massacre that was sparked in late February 2002, when attackers set fire to two train cars carrying Hindu activists in the town of Godhra. Fifty-eight people died in the blaze, many of them women and children.
In the days that followed, Hindu nationalists rampaged through the state capital and then into outlying villages. Seeking revenge, they left a trail of corpses, burned businesses and razed mosques. Washington-based Human Rights Watch put the death count near 2,000, mostly Muslims, and reported that Muslim girls and women were raped and mutilated in Gujarat before being killed.
Human rights monitors also have accused the state government of failing to prevent the violence, and even encouraging it. In the aftermath, Modi was reported to have claimed that Gujarat's largely Hindu population had "shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation."
Among those opposing Modi's visit is the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which wrote a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking the White House to deny U.S. entry to Modi.
"He called the riots a `natural outpouring,'" said the council's South Florida director, Altaf Ali. "You cannot call killing innocent people a natural outpouring."
Schwartz said a "serious investigation" was under way into the massacre.
On its Web site, the association makes no mention of the rights charges, but refers to Modi as "a master political strategist, a firebrand agitator," and "an extraordinary orator." The Coalition Against Genocide, an offshoot of the Indian Muslim Council, which is also opposed to his speaking engagement in Fort Lauderdale, calls him a "militant, anti-minority Indian politician."
The hotel association's members have grown into a formidable force in the hospitality business over the past 30 years, and own about 20,000 hotels across the United States. Bonds to their home state of Gujarat remain strong, and after an earthquake hit the region in 2000 the association funneled aid into rebuilding efforts that helped erect hundreds of homes and schools.
"I think he should not come. It's not wise," said Sandip Bhakta, the owner of the Sheraton Beach Motel in Fort Lauderdale and an association member, although he said Modi generally was well-liked in the Gujarat state.
Bhakta said Modi's visit would do little to advance the association's agenda and might be construed as insensitive to the association's Muslim members.
Ruth Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4691.